Cape Town — The topic of diversity within gaming and eSports has become an increasingly significant one over the past several years. The gaming industry has grown exponentially over the past decade with a global market estimated to be worth U.S.$135 billion in 2018. According to Statista, the video game market size in the U.S. alone was calculated to be worth more than U.S.$95 billion in 2022, eclipsing the previous record high of U.S.$86.5 billion for 2021.
However, this financial promise is coupled with the fact that marginalised groups continually face a lack of representation, both within the medium and the industry itself. Recently, #EveryGamerCounts – an initiative by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg – was introduced with the intention of promoting diversity and equality in the gaming industry.
The gaming industry poses multiple overlooked challenges aside from representation. According to Sylvia “QueenArrow” Gathoni, an eSports athlete and Content Creator for gaming organisation UYU, one of these was accessibility to peripherals required to compete in fighting game tournaments. “Starting out, I didn’t even have a console,” Gathoni said, adding that this was made more difficult due to being a student and the financial constraints that accompany the role.
Gathoni also voiced the that being a women in the largely male-dominated fighting game community (FGC) was another hurdle that needed to be overcome, one that may have been easier if additional representation among women was made possible due to the support that would bring, particularly at the beginning of her professional gaming career. “Having someone who understood those struggles would have been a huge help, like someone I could come to for advice,” Gathoni said.
Poor internet infrastructure was something Gathoni felt also needed to be addressed. This is an issue that the industry appears to be addressing with popular shooter titles like Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Halo: Infinite bother offering local South African servers to help reduce latency and ping for local players, according to MyBroadband.
Content creators face their own set of challenges as well, according to Tiana “PandaTi” Davids, a “Let’s Play” Content Creator for gaming organisation NiBBLE eSports. System requirements – relating to the recommended or minimum hardware necessary – for PC games was one example. Similarly to Gathoni, Davids hoped for a better support structure for those discovering gaming to be able to call on, recalling her own trouble learning about the industry at the start of her career when none of her friends then were familiar with it.
For Neo Sibeko, editor of TheOverclocker Magazine and PC hardware enthusiast, access to hardware is paramount. Sibeko related this to his own history and background of learning about PC hardware. “In my entire career, I’m still the only black person that does hardware,” said Sibeko whose access to PC components began in his childhood at a time when no other children in his neighbourhood did. “You can imagine how many more people would be in this industry, particularly in my environment if they just had access to it,” Sibeko said.
He added that, going forward, he hoped that to see old hardware be made available to communities that don’t typically have access to such technology as 10-year-old video games would still be able to run on 10-year-old hardware. “You can always use hardware, it doesn’t matter how old it is,” Sibeko said, adding: “It’s just puzzling to see it disappear into the ether.”
According to AllAfrica InfoWire, Sibeko’s concerns are part of a larger problem facing the continent and its access to technology at large. Multiple reasons are cited with education, outdated government policies and corruption among them. Gathoni’s concerns of poor infrastructure were also factored in and substantiated with the additional difficulty of the lack of access to electricity to many rural areas across the continent.
Limpho Moeti – Business Developer for the Johannesburg-based games studio, Nyamakop – echoed Davids and Sibeko’s calls for better access and support, adding that the knowledge of the roles required of those who wish to work in the gaming industry also needs to be made more apparent. “Having the support of a studio and spaces that can help you grow can improve your knowledge,” Moetio said.
By not solving accessibility and inclusivity, is it possible that the gaming industry is missing out on cultural and economic opportunities? According to TechCrunch, accessibility is both a challenge and an opportunity.
This is according to a report by Scope, a disability equality charity in England and Wales, which found that, based on the needs and habits of disabled gamers in the UK, millions face regular difficulties over how they may enjoy or buy games. The report wrote: “According to Accenture’s – a firm specialising in information technology services and consulting – analysis of the Disability Equality Index, companies that prioritise digital inclusion are twice as likely to have higher shareholder returns, achieve 28% higher revenue, and see a 30% better performance in economic profit margins.”
For Gathoni, lack of opportunity for African gamers to compete at a global level is another missing opportunity the industry has to address in a meaningful way. “By not competing on the world stage, we’re not having the opportunity to tell our stories or our unique lived experiences and if we don’t do that, the rest of the world will continue to have its assumptions about our region,” Gathoni said.
This is a concern for many African eSports players, going as far back as several years. In 2017, an article by Vice revealed that while the eSports industry has continued to grow in scope, African players were still marginalised.
The lack of African players at major tournaments for popular online battle arena video game Dota 2 and shooter tile Overwatch during their 2017 iterations was, according to Vice’s Jacob Kleinman, not due to a lack of skill but due to the continent’s lack of game-specific servers run by major publishers like Activision Blizzard, Valve and Riot Games.
“Sometimes ping is an advantage,” said Davids in relation to Africa’s lack of video game servers. “You want to play these games competitively or even if you just want to have a good time with your friends but there will be these things that hold you back.” Davids pointed to African streamers – video content creators on popular platforms like Twitch and YouTube – being targeted by international viewers for having poor latency, a problem completely out of their control. “It’s not our fault our ping is bad but we get excluded,” Davids said.
For Moeti, lack of opportunity also extends to the continent’s capacity to produce video games itself. “What frustrates me the most is that, through these structural barriers and biases – unconscious or not – we end up in a space where we are unable to fully grow and we end up having less cool things.” For Moeti, this concern comes along with the fact that she works as a producer and business developer at Nyamakop developing African-inspired video games. The independent studio has produced Semblance, a two-dimensional platform and traversal game available on the Nintendo Switch and PC.
Africa’s talent for game development extends to Cameroon as well where Kiro’o Games produced Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan, an action/role-playing game based on African myths and folklore. The studio was founded by Madiba Olivier who used his passion for gaming to create Central Africa’s first video game studio. The studio’s opportunity to tell African stories places it in a unique position as storytelling for the continent via an interactive medium is relatively limited compared to those in Europe, Japan and the U.S. Sibeko made note of this. “With this sort of access, you’re almost funneling the experiences that people can have. Growing up, most of the games I experienced were from a Caucasian male’s perspective. Even the people I ended up relating to, particularly in first-person games, I ended up embodying a white guy, which is not who I am,” said Sibeko. “That in itself is not a problem, but it does curtail the kind of stories you can tell,” he added.
Sibeko’s experiences fall in line with research conducted by video game website Diamond Lobby. The site compiled over 100 games released between 2017 and 2021, all of which were bestsellers and produced by major publishers including Activision, Ubisoft and Electronic Arts. It found that 79.2% of the main protagonists were male while 20.8% were female. Along with this, 54.2% of main characters were Caucasian while 8.3% of characters were non-white ethnicities.
Davids voiced her hope that a greater level of diversity – whether among studios themselves, the games they produce, visibility of streamers – would become more apparent by greater dissemination of knowledge to those largely inexperienced with the gaming industry. “I didn’t know this was something I could get into so I think that letting people know they can actually do this can come from it,” she said.
Davids extended this hope to the elimination of stereotypes that place gamers in boxes based on the titles they play, like enjoying The Sims should not be regarded as one enjoying a “girl’s game”. “You see the horror stories of how people are treated in the gaming space because of their interest … People should just do what makes them happy and learn that it doesn’t matter because you’re just having fun,” Davids said.